The Plight of Conference Organizers – Conference Diversity

Throughout my time at CodeMash, I found myself retreating to the speaker room to try to hide and preserve my voice.  At one point, I found myself talking with fellow speakers and conference organizers.  (Note: I’m in both roles – speaking at CodeMash and helping with speaker recruitment and selection for Stir Trek.)  When I mentioned I was giving my History of Women in Tech talk, it opened the door to let the others vent about a common problem… managing conference diversity.

Problem #1. The Lack of Women and the Community of Crucifiers

One of the speakers happened to be an organizer of a conference that accepts every submission that they receive.  One year, they had all male speakers, not a female speaker at all.  To add to the furor, there was a male speaker with a name that’s commonly associated with females.  This didn’t bode well.  Unfortunately, this caused a community uproar – “this group apparently is anti-female speakers” and other untrue statements.  The community raised the issue to the local media, giving the event even more unnecessary negative publicity.  The fact of the matter is that they indeed had 0 submissions from female speakers.  However, the community – who thinks they know the whole picture – was quick to crucify the conference organizers on this.  These actions not only stress conference organizers out but also drive conference organizers away from wanting to plan more events.  This negative publicity also drives away any female speakers who would possibly submit their talks to the event – what person would want to submit their talks to a conference where they wouldn’t feel welcome?  This isn’t helpful.

How to be a Supportive Community

Rather than the community being all up in arms and saying “this group is anti-female”, it would be more helpful for the community to be more pro-active and reach out to their favorite female speakers saying “Hey, we’re having Event ABC on such-and-such date and would love for you to submit your talks there.”  Conference organizers do this already, and we’d love to have the community help us by letting us know which speakers they want to see.  Rather than crucify conference organizers for the lack of diversity, reach out with ways on how to increase the diversity.  (As an aside, there were a bunch of us who recommended talking with Alex Miller and how he runs Strangeloop, as it’s probably the most diverse, community-run tech conference that we’ve seen so far.)

Problem #2. The Lack of Experienced Speakers

In the previous situation, that was a conference that accepted all submissions.  However, on the speaker selection committees I’ve been on – including a couple past CodeMash committees and most of the past Stir Trek committees – we don’t accept all submissions.  In fact, with Stir Trek, we do some submissions and some invitations if we find speakers we really really want.  Our job on the speaker selection committee is to select the talks that our audiences want to hear, which means selecting the right topics and then hoping we schedule them all appropriately.  So this is how I approach speaker selection:

1. Find all the talks on topics that I know we need.

2. Research the abstract to make sure it’s covering everything we need.

3. Research the speaker to make sure (s)he is the right level speaker for our event.

In #3, we’re looking for people who have spoken in front of crowds successfully and have been very well-received.  I’ve been known to vote against speakers who don’t have this track record.  I’m not one to sacrifice the quality of talks for the sake of diversity.  I also would expect other conferences to be doing the same thing.

How to Become a Better, More Experienced Speaker

While there are plenty of women speakers, we come in at various levels – from the ones who speak at international conferences to others who are still at user group level.  So what do I recommend to the ones who aren’t ready and end up not getting accepted?

  • Speak, speak, speak!  From internal company user groups and lunch-n-learns to community user groups… from local mini-conferences to meetups… there are plenty of opportunities to hone your speaking skills.
  • Get involved with Toastmasters.
  • Find a mentor in the speaking world who may be able to help you get where you want to be.

In conclusion, rather than complaining about the lack of diversity in conference speakers, let’s find productive ways of increasing diversity.

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